Mauricio Pochettino already knows what he will say to the Paris Saint-Germain players on Tuesday. He’s been here before.
That doesn’t just mean Eastlands, and his victorious Champions League second leg away to Manchester City with Tottenham Hotspur in 2018-19. Pep Guardiola will be all too conscious of that, but more relevant was the next round. That was Spurs’ semi-final against Ajax, which also blocked the route to the final.
Then, as now, Pochettino’s side had lost the first leg at home. In the seven-decade history of the competition prior to that match, only eight teams had overcome such a situation to go through. Much has also been made in the last week of how an English side have never suffered this. They have always gone through on the 47 occasions they have won the first leg away from home. City come bolstered with that knowledge, to go with the assurance from their supreme first-leg win.
The edge is that Pochettino is the last manager to have overturned such a deficit. It became even more momentous since Tottenham actually went further behind in that second leg against Ajax, at one point losing 3-0 on aggregate.
After the Spurs players’ spectacular comeback, many recalled Pochettino’s pre-game talk. This is what the PSG players will hear.
Although he sometimes leaves such talks to the captain, Pochettino insisted on taking this one himself. There were the usual tactical details distilled into snippets the players could easily recall in the moment, but they were interspersed with what players and staff described as “inspirational” comments.
Pochettino began to talk about what it meant for the team and him, while writing a few choice quotes on the whiteboard.
It may seem simplistic, but it is what stands out for players in the decisive moments when they have to stand up.
Pochettino will naturally take a slightly different approach than he did with Spurs, since that was a first semi-final for him and that team. Much of the talk was about the pride at getting so far, at how this was a dream to be on such a stage. This was the time to seize it.
PSG were at this level a year ago, of course, but it hasn’t made questions about their character go away. You only had to look at that second half against City, which seemed to illustrate all of the worst flaws associated with this team – right down to a loss of discipline.
The commentary and the performance has burned some of the players.
City have meanwhile been fortified by the conviction of their second-half display – that seemed to really show how much they have evolved and learned in this competition.
There is still a second leg to go through, though, and it is still so on edge that it could see any emotions about the occasion drastically go the other way. We already saw that in the first leg, after all. It initially seemed like PSG were the side that had stepped up to the stage, that had grown with the competition.
They were left well and truly chastened. That sense of pride is something that Pochettino has to tap into, and use as a motivating factor.
Man City ran out victors in the first leg
It is the human core even to a game of otherwise huge geo-political dimensions, and that applies to City as well. The outcome of this tie will almost represent a referendum on the two teams and their managers in the Champions League. That is the price of state investment.
It also points to one of the contrasts between the teams, that greatly conditioned that second leg. There can be little doubt City’s Abu Dhabi owners have been far more intelligent about the running of the club than PSG’s Qatar hierarchy. The football infrastructure has been a model for every club in the game – especially if you have £2bn worth of investment available.
This Guardiola team – and perhaps this season’s Champions League – represent the culmination of something 10 years in the making. Everything has been designed to get here, right down to effectively creating the perfect conditions for the Catalan to work in.
That can be seen in the team, which now resembles an almost smoothly organic machine. They are almost impossible to get at or get away from.
This cannot be seen in PSG. If City are all smooth surfaces that swarm you, the French champions are jagged edges – right down to Kylian Mbappe and Neymar jutting out at pace.
This team doesn’t really represent the culmination of anything, in terms of a football idea. That is made clear by the fact Pochettino is still only four months into the job.
He is still trying to make the team effective in the short term, while instilling an identity in the long term, all while navigating the nuances of some of the biggest personalities in the game. This isn’t a young team ready to be moulded, in the way Pochettino’s Spurs were at the start. They are superstars.
It is why Pochettino will have to lean on their pride, and why so much of this rests on Neymar.
After a period where he had seemed to be coming into his own as a player, and was banishing so many negative perceptions, the City match instantly brought back so many criticisms. The Brazilian was not the player sent off, but he was still held up as the personification of their character of not fulfilling their talent when it mattered.
It even prompted another round of discussion of why Neymar is so disliked.
Neymar was unable to influence the outcome of the first leg
The irony to this is that anyone who has met the 29-year-old says he is actually a “nice kid” behind it all. He will even go out of his way to try and be liked, offering to carry people’s luggage when they wouldn’t expect it. Pochettino has so far struck up a good relationship with him.
A complicating factor has been the world Neymar lives in, and the entourage around him. That level of indulgence will start to skew perceptions, and lead to behaviour where teammates privately call you “a complete prick”.
Another irony, however, is that Neymar specifically pushed to go to PSG himself to “be his own man”. He wanted to get away from all that. It wasn’t his father’s decision. It was his. And it was for games like this.
While Neymar remains friends with Lionel Messi, and treasures their 2015 Champions League victory together, he wants to have a win of his own; to be the defining player.
He will rarely have a greater stage to show that. It is what Pochettino will be trying to bring out in him. It is another contrast between the teams of course.
City have truly elite players in Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden, but they are more integrated into a team, rather than the team seeming to serve the stars.
These are the games where Neymar has to show he is worth it.
These are the challenges where European champions show their worth, and withstand. Both managers are all too aware of the true price of failure, and what victory would mean.
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